As beautiful spring weather bursts forth, I just want to get outside and enjoy nature. Everywhere I look, I see kids going crazy with the glee of being outdoors, without snowsuits and boots, enjoying the finest of the season – getting into mud, checking out the flowers, running through the grass.
If this fine weather has inspired you to start dreaming of a summer holiday, you might want to consider camping. With a little bit of planning, camping can be an easy, affordable, family friendly activity that can be enjoyed by everyone from babies to grandparents.
But My Kids Are City Kids!
Do kids love camping? Do they ever! Beaches, playgrounds, lots of sunshine, tasty treats, campfires, and the novelty of tents make for an irresistible combination. Even the “city kids” seem to really enjoy the experience – camping no longer means “roughing it”. Campgrounds come equipped with hot water and showers, free Wi-Fi, general stores, and even hot food kiosks. If you’re going camping for the first time, it can be a bit intimidating to figure out all the gear, food, and information. Here are a few tips to help make the experience an easy one.
Where To Start & Where To Go:
Ontario is fortunate to have an extensive network of beautiful, well maintained provincial parks that offer an orderly, user-friendly camping system. As soon as you have settled on your dates, be sure to reserve your site. Some of the most popular campgrounds sell out five months in advance, especially during holiday weekends. I find it easiest to call the campsite directly and ask the staff for their recommendation. Let them know how many children you have and how old they are –the staff can help you select a site that has a nice balance between bathrooms and beach proximity. Ottawa residents have a choice of several provincial parks within an hour’s drive, and many more in a 3 hour radius. Having a short drive will make your trip less tiring and, in case of any tummy trouble, you can easily get back home.
No Tent – No Problem!
If you don’t own a tent, considering borrowing some camping gear before investing in it yourself. You can bypass sleeping bags in favor of regular blankets, but you’ll want to have a good quality air mattress (this is the key factor between good and bad sleeps!) Flashlights and headlights are another must have. We forget how dark it gets at night and you’ll want easy navigation to the bathrooms! A roll of paper towel, a container of wet wipes, and biodegradable plates and cutlery will make your first camping trip an easier one. Campers big, small, and even canine require high quality sun and bug protection and lots of hydration. For your first few short camping trips, you can bypass specialty equipment in favor of a little creativity – last summer, we helped friends bath their 3 month old by creating a tub out of our plastic food bin! Worked like a charm!
Most campsites come equipped with a fire pit and metal grate, but typically campers only use it for evening campfires and roasting marshmallows. Cooking all of your meals over a fire pit can be fun, but also challenging. Bring along a camp stove for quicker cooking and prepare lots of easy, no cook snacks and meals.
Camp cooking can be as basic or fancy as you and your family want. Kids go crazy for classics like hotdogs cooked over open flame, gooey S’mores, and Jiffy popcorn, but you can also go all out and have some foodie fun! I’ve done a full Indian meal which was much easier than it sounds. Advance preparation of food in sturdy Ziploc bags is the way to go!
Decide in advance how healthy you expect your children to eat. If you are going with other families, there might be a lot of temptation around! Consider having a very healthy breakfast (yogurt, fruit, whole grain muffins, scrambled eggs), followed by a moderately healthy lunch (cold cut sandwiches, fajitas, pitas, carrots, and dips). By mid-afternoon and into the evening, even the adults have a hard time resisting the chips!
Every family loves the experience of “camp time” – nothing scheduled, nothing planned; just fun and relaxation. But if you do want to experience something more structured, speak with the park rangers. There are daily ranger programs aimed for children and families that cover a wide range of topics, from fossils and rocks to searching for nocturnal animals! Most parks also have an extensive network of nature walks suitable for all abilities. In case of poor weather, I always bring along a few board games and books to pass a drizzly hour or two.
Rules of Three, Leaves of Three.
Camping is a great time to leave the rules at home, but every trip requires some safety guidelines. I suggest having three firm rules: No playing around the fire pit (regardless of if there’s a fire), no leaving the campsite without telling someone; and one rule that works for your own family’s dynamics (No fighting and teasing? Don’t unleash the dog?)
Ask park staff for information concerning poison ivy and other reactive plants, often identified by the “leaves of three, let it be” rule. Last summer, we discovered an extensive poison ivy patch on our campsite and there was one notorious incident when the kids went streaking right through it! Remarkably, they emerged unscathed!
Family Friendly – YES! But Budget Friendly?
Camping can be a very budget friendly activity. After all, three families can share a campsite for $30 a night. But the little costs of camping can easily add up and, if you’re on a tight budget, there are several expenses to look out for. Even if you borrow camping supplies, you will still have to stock up on groceries and convenience foods are very expensive. You’ll also likely be picking up juice boxes for the kids – along with bottles of “adult juice” for the grownups! Don’t forget to bring along money for campfire wood, cooler ice, and high grade bug spray. Finally, communities around campgrounds contain many temptations; including ice cream stands, fudge counters, craft stalls, farmers markets, and festival fare. Help keep your expenses in check by setting up a basic budget like you would for any trip and consider issuing pocket money to the kids to keep the ice cream and slushy expenses more controlled.
Children don’t need beautiful hotel rooms, guided tours, or even clean clothing to make incredible travel memories that last a lifetime and bond a family together. A simple, inexpensive, low key camping weekend can become the kind of yearly tradition that everyone looks forward to and I hope your camping memories are as warm and endearing as mine!